Lyme disease: What It Is and How To Avoid It

With warmer weather, you may be planning some outdoor activities. Whether for fun or work, your planning should include some sensible health precautions.

Among them would be to use insect repellent when you’ll be in a situation where you might get bug bites.

Here’s why insect repellent is important 

Insect bites can be more than just annoying. Different kinds of ticks in the U.S. may be infected with bacteria, viruses and parasites that can pass to you through a bite. The blacklegged deer tick can transmit Lyme disease. It can also transmit the rare Powassan virus. 

What you should know about Lyme disease 

Lyme disease can be hard to diagnose. You may have been bitten by a tick and not even know. And you might confuse some of the symptoms with having the flu.

To make a diagnosis, your health care professional will review your symptoms and your medical history. A lab test may be requested, but in early stages the results may not provide a clear diagnosis. A different test can be done later that can confirm if you have the disease. 

Lyme disease symptoms 

In the first month after the tick bite, the symptoms include:

  • Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
  • A rash known as erythema migrans (EM) – this:
    • Occurs in about 70 to 80 percent of infected persons.
    • Begins at the site of the tick bite after about 3 to 30 days (average is about 7 days).
    • Expands gradually over several days reaching up to 12 inches or more across.
    • May feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful.
    • Sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bull's-eye” appearance.
    • May appear on any area of the body.

Over the following days or months, you’ll notice other symptoms:

  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness.
  • Additional EM rashes on other areas of the body.
  • Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly in the knees and other large joints.
  • Facial or Bell's palsy (loss of muscle tone or a droop on one or both sides of the face).
  • Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints and bones.
  • Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis).
  • Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath.
  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Nerve pain.
  • Shooting pains, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.
  • Problems with short-term memory.

If you notice these symptoms (see rash examples), visit your health care professional. The sooner you receive treatment, the more effective it will be.

How you can prevent Lyme disease

Here’s how you can avoid the ticks and bites that can cause Lyme disease:

  • When walking in grassy, wooded areas that might be tick-prone, use an insect repellant that is effective against ticks, and cover up with long shirts and long pants tucked into socks.
  • Ticks must stay attached for more than 36 hours to transmit the parasite, so a full body check soon after being outdoors in a tick-prone area, even a suburban lawn, is urged.
  • Taking a shower within two hours of being in a tick area has been shown to be helpful and provides a good time to check for ticks on your body.
  • When checking for ticks, include hard-to-see areas such as between toes, between legs and on the head. Ticks can be very small, so you’ll want to check carefully.
  • Remove any ticks with pointed tweezers, grabbing ticks by their mouth parts, close to your skin.

If you have questions about Lyme disease, visit with your health care professional. 

Meet the Author

Steven J. Heyden, MD is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Whitefish Bay.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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